Thursday, February 15, 2018

Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind

A couple of days ago I took myself off to see ‘The Mercy’. I didn’t know much about the film or the true story it was based on, but I hadn’t been making use of my Cineworld unlimited card due to a recent spell of illness and I figured that anything starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz couldn’t be all bad.

‘The Mercy’ is a solid, well-crafted piece of film-making that benefits from Firth’s most engaged performance in probably a decade. It’s beautifully shot and the score by the late Jóhann Jóhannson is icily effective. But I came away thinking that it had shied away from the darker aspects of its subject. Almost as if director James Marsh had wanted to preserve an enigma, rather than meeting that enigma head-on and trying to get inside his protagonist’s head.

Nonetheless, the film managed to loop a hook into my mind. I drove home, poured a drink and spent an hour on the internet. I’d only vaguely known of Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe Race; I had no idea it was a subject that filmmakers had grappled with for over forty years. I noted that Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s book ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ had been reissued, and resolved to purchase a copy after payday. I made a list of the various films – biopics, documentaries, fictionalised treatments – based on the story. I found Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s 2006 feature-length documentary ‘Deep Water’ online and watched it. I turned it at way past midnight that evening (with work the next day) and dreamed of a waterlogged trimaran and the terrible loneliness of months spent at sea alone.

Crowhurst and the terrible outcome of his adventure was all I could think of next day at work. That evening, I found ‘Horse Latitudes’ online: an award-winning TV movie from 1975 that changed the principles’ names and took certain liberties in its presentation of Crowhurst, but remains an intriguing starting-point in terms of trying to distil Crowhurst’s bizarre story into a cinematic format.

Currently, I’m trying to track down several other movies and TV productions, and waiting for Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ to get its theatrical release. Having ingested three Crowhurst features in 24 hours, the one thing I know for sure is that something about his story has gripped me, has made me want to drill down into it and look at all the angles. So, depending on how much material I can get my hands on, I’m declaring a Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind – I’ll review everything I can get my hands on over the next couple of weeks.

Given that everything I’ll be writing about, no matter how different the aesthetic approach or the filmmakers’ agenda, will of necessity overlap in very specific respects, this article is perhaps the ideal time to set down the basic facts of the story so that I don’t have to rehash them ad nauseum.

In 1968, weekend sailor and inventor of navigational aids Donald Crowhurst threw his hat into the ring when the Sunday Times, keen to exploit Sir Francis Chichester’s recent round-the-world solo yachting triumph, threw out a challenge. Chichester had made one stop for major overhauls. The Sunday Times offered a hefty cash prize for anyone navigating the globe, alone, without stopping. There were in fact two prizes: one for the first sailor to complete the voyage, and one for the fastest. The start date deadline was 31 October – any later and certain stretches of the ocean might prove unnavigable.

The other competitors – including merchant navy veteran Robin Knox-Johnson; author, philosopher and adventurer Bernard Moitessier; and former submarine commander Bill King – were far more experienced than Crowhurst. Nonetheless, Crowhurst secured sponsorship from a local businessman, Stanley Best, and had a trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, built to his own specifications. Crowhurst intended the vessel to be state-of-the-art and kitted out with a phalanx of his own safety and navigation devices; his intention was to market these gizmos on his return, benefiting from the publicity generated by the race.

To drum up said publicity, he hired crime reporter Rodney Hallworth as his press agent. It’s hard not to see Best and Hallworth as the villains of the piece. Though a millionaire, Best’s sponsorship of Crowhurst came with a caveat: that if Crowhurst dropped out or failed to complete the race, he would be legally obliged to buy back the trimaran from Best. With his house already remortgaged and his finances shoddy to begin with, Crowhurst had essentially staked everything on the Golden Globe. Hallworth went to town on the hyperbole in his, ahem, reports (embellishments might be a better word), creating a public expectation that Crowhurst would have been hard pressed to deliver on even if he were a more accomplished sailor and his boat actually ready at the point of departure.

The seeds of tragedy had been sown before he even departed English shores. With the 31st October looming and incredible pressure on him to set sail, it was clear that the Teignmouth Electron wasn’t ready. His self-designed safety equipment was installed but not functional; he kidded himself that he’d get them working whilst at sea. An ingenuous buoyancy device, intended to counter the fact that trimarans are more susceptible to capsizing than mono-hulled vessels, may as well have remained on the drawing board for all its functional capabilities.

After a false start, Crowhurst set sail on the last possible date. Progress was slow. Myriad problems with the Teignmouth Electron manifested. The hulls were prone to flooding and Crowhurst had to bail by hand. It was bad enough in relatively clement seas, but once he was round the Cape of Good Hope and into the “roaring forties” (a perilous stretch of ocean between the fortieth and fiftieth parallels) the ship would likely be swamped. Crowhurst gave himself 50/50 odds of actually surviving the trip.

Alone, ill-prepared, nowhere near experienced enough as a yachtsman, Crowhurst found himself in a galling dilemma: press on and risk both the ship and his own life, or turn back and face fiscal ruination and public humiliation as a failure. His solution was a huge gamble, even in pre-GPS 1968: he created a second log book in which he mapped out an entirely fictitious journey. He cabled progress updates to Hallworth claiming the doldrums were over and the Teignmouth Electron was achieving the kind of speeds of which he’d always insisted she were capable. He knew that his phoney log wouldn’t stand up to tooth-comb scrutiny, so he intended to rejoin the race in last place and play the plucky underdog card. He’d be forfeiting the prize money for the fastest circumnavigation, but he’d be free of his obligations to Best and he could still milk the publicity to the benefit of his business.

Only he’d reckoned without how hard a solo non-stop round-the-world yacht trip is, even for experience sailors. Robin Knox-Johnson, in a display of good-natured championship, was the first to complete the journey, but he’d taken his time in doing so. The £5000 prize for the fastest entrant (that’s about £100,000 adjusted for inflation) was still up for grabs. Except fewer and fewer contestants remained to grab it. Most dropped out, none more dramatically than Moitessier, who had channelled the solitude of the voyage into a philosophical sense of self-awareness. Knowing the he could never face the crowds and cameras and intrusions into his life and experience, Moitessier didn’t so much drop out of the race as simply ignore the finish line and sail round the world for a second time.

As Crowhurst communicated his false bearings, mainly telegraphically as he knew his radio signals wouldn’t bear out his claimed positions, Hallworth spun them into a narrative of underdog heroism, derring-do and record-breaking speeds. Naturally, all of this got back to the other competitors. Nigel Tetley was looking set to follow Knox-Johnson into second place. Concerned that Crowhurst was gaining on him, he pushed his boat too hard in ill weather and only just avoided going down with it.

Crowhurst’s deception was entirely dependent on coming last. Nobody, he was convinced, would give his log more than a cursory glance. But the news of Tetley’s disaster left him in an impossible position: Knox-Johnson had finished, and he, Donald Crowhurst, was the only other yachtsman still in the race. The £5000 prize and all the attendant publicity – in other words, the almost inevitable uncovering of the deception – were all but guaranteed.

At this point, Crowhurst quit sailing the Teignmouth Electron and just drifted through the kelp-clogged expanse of the Sargasso Sea. He opened a third log and wrote a bizarre 25,000 word essay on cosmic beings, godlike perspectives and the nature of time. The final paragraphs are indicative of a man who has lost his mind.

Days later, the trimaran was spotted by a passing container ship. It was deserted. The log books fell into Hallworth’s hands and the story they told was front page news. Crowhurst’s body was never found. Knox-Johnson donated his prize money to Clare Crowhurst and her children.

It’s the abject claustrophobia of the story that’s got under my skin. The idea of someone in a confined space (made more confined by the vastness of the ocean around him) making a decision born of the lack of other viable options and then finding himself unable to reverse or untangle that decision never mind the consequences. Then there’s the enigma: did Crowhurst deliberately commit suicide, or did he slip from the vessel while the balance of mind was awry. Are the contents of his final log a spiritual epiphany or demented ravings?

The subject is rife for conjecture; a jumping off point for the creative imagination. In addition to at least two published books on the subject and the (pardon the pun) raft of features, be they big screen, small screen, fictionalised or documentary, there have been theatrical productions, art installations, poems, even an opera. Donald Crowhurst set out to become a hero; circumstances forced him to become a fraudster; the enigmatic pull of his story, and its lure for artists, finally made him a legend.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Having already chalked up an impressive career as a playwright, Martin McDonagh made his directorial debut in 2006 with Oscar-winning short film ‘Six Shooter’, the promise of which he made good on in memorable style with ‘In Bruges’ in 2009. His sophomore feature film ‘Seven Psychopaths’ opened to mixed reviews in 2013 – admission: never seen it – and, after another four year gap, he returns with ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’.

Now, I fucking bloody loved ‘In Bruges’ (Agitation review here) and consider it a pitch perfect black comedy. But here’s the thing: watch the deleted scenes on the DVD and it comes abundantly clear that had they made the final cut, ‘In Bruges’ wouldn’t have been anywhere near pitch perfect. It would, tonally, have been all over the fucking place.

My guess is that either: (a) McDonagh had an on-the-ball producer on ‘In Bruges’ who knew exactly what did and didn’t work and instructed him to make cuts accordingly, or (b) unanimous test audience responses led to the same outcome.

I can’t claim that ‘Seven Psychopaths’ bolsters or diminishes the observation, not having seen it, but I would hazard a guess that no-one was around on ‘Three Billboards’ to bring to McDonagh’s attention the film’s really jarring tonal shifts. A blander, more boilerplate piece of work might have been sunk by them, but fortunately ‘Three Billboards’ has a hell of a lot to commend it despite its flaws.

Narratively, the first thing it put me in mind of was that Tolstoy novella about the forged promissory note, and how its passage around a provincial town negatively affects everyone involved. Just substitute raped and murdered teenager for forged promissory note and Ebbing, Missouri for provincial Russian town.

The victim of this heinous crime is Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton). Seven months have passed since the atrocity and the local police department have given up on the case. Angela’s mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) responds by renting three billboards on the backwoods road where Angela was assaulted and killed – she raises the money by selling off a tractor/trailer belonging to her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), currently shacked up with his 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) – and uses them to unsolved-crime-shame Ebbing sheriff Chief Willoughby (a never-better Woody Harrelson).

To put it mildly, Mildred stirs some shit. Or to put it another way, Mildred tears the bandage off Ebbing’s festering wound. Or to be it another way, if Lisbeth Salander in the novels by Stieg Larsson is the girl who kicked the hornets’ nest, then Mildred is the woman who smacked the hornets’ nest down to the ground, doused it in petrol, tossed a firecracker at it and shouted “yeah, bitch” as it went up in flames.

Mildred’s provocation has its most immediate effect on Willoughby, a man who has admitted that there’s little more he can do as regards Angela’s murder, and is also somewhat distracted by the requirements of setting his affairs in order on account of the fact that he’s dying of cancer. His terminal condition has an understandable knock-on effect on his younger wife Anne (Abbie Cornish: her best turn since ‘Bright Star’) and their two children.

Willoughby’s terminal condition doesn’t do much, either, for the equilibrium of his alcoholic short-fuse deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a man-child in thrall to his obnoxiously racist mother. Unable to vent his frustrations elsewhere, Dixon targets local entrepreneur Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), owner of the advertising company who lease Mildred the billboards. In the broadest of strokes – broad to the point of cliché – McDonagh’s script establishes Dixon as the villain of the piece, as stupid as he is dangerous, only to flip everything on its head.

At any one time, and sometimes with the two or three minute passage of one single scene, ‘Three Billboards’ functions as a black comedy, a procedural, a melodrama, a cautionary tale as regards the exponential consequences of wrong things done for the right reason (airhead Penelope’s “anger begets anger” scene is both laugh-out-loud funny and the intellectual cornerstone of the movie), and an enquiry into the nature of responsibility, forgiveness and atonement.

Atonement is where the film scores its most palpable hits – far more effectively than McDonagh’s brother’s recent outing ‘Calvary’, which attempts a similar enquiry – with scenes between Dixon and Red, and Dixon and Mildred, communicating far more than the understated sketches that McDonagh is wise enough to be satisfied with rather than making some sweeping moral statement.

It’s not exactly front page news to declare than understatement, inference and ambiguity communicate the big themes more effectively than tub-thumping or polemics. But it’s surprising how many artists, of whatever discipline, still haven’t twigged to this. McDonagh fumbles the ball in enough places that an overall less interesting film wouldn’t have survived the uneven tonal shifts, the hackneyed characterisations and the bludgeoningly obvious narrative tropes.

That ‘Three Billboards’ just about dodges its myriad self-fired bullets owes to a first-rate cast who invest in their characters to the hilt, and to McDormand in particular who effortlessly clears the twenty-year hurdle of her achievement in ‘Fargo’ to deliver her definitive performance and bring to life a character for the ages.

Friday, January 12, 2018

All the Money in the World

Let’s be honest: whatever its merits or otherwise, ‘All the Money in the World’ will forever be remembered as the film where director Ridley Scott basically erased Kevin Spacey. With the actor in disgrace following sexual harassment allegations – and, worse, sexual harassment, in one case, of a minor – and the film only a month or so away from its release date, Scott recast Christopher Plummer in the role of John Paul Getty and reshot twenty-two scenes. It was originally announced that the affected cast had returned for the reshoots for free; as the film opened to lacklustre returns, it was revealed that Michelle Williams had basically got about $1000 in expenses while Mark Wahlberg had renegotiated his fee and pocketed an extra million and a half.

So: person originally playing venal human being gets axed from the film for being a venal human being himself; actor playing a negotiator profitably negotiates; actress playing impecunious character gets paid fuck all extra; and a film about the fallout of rampant greed inadvertently highlights the Hollywood glass ceiling while not actually raking in many spondoolies at the box office.

That sound you just heard was the irony-o-meter exploding.

One day there will be a book or a feature-length documentary about the making of ‘All the Money in the World’ and it will be infinitely more fascinating than the movie itself. Which isn’t to say that ‘All the Money in the World’ is necessarily bad – it’s often good and occasionally very good – but there’s a listlessness to some of its scenes and an inelegance in the way it all hangs together and I’m not convinced that either of those things are due to the reshoots and/or re-editing. In fact, in anything, the film probably got an upgrade by dint of Plummer’s involvement.

That Christopher Plummer came to the project at the eleventh hour, with presumably very little (if any) time to rehearse, and gave the nuanced and hypnotic performance that’s on display here – enigmatic, inscrutable, morally sinister and just that tiny bit charming – is astounding. He’s so good that I actually feel guilty for saying that he’s the second best thing about ‘All the Money in the World’.

The absolute best thing about the film – a standout and possibly definitive performance in a filmography unmarked by a single bad, lazy or indifferent turn – is Michelle Williams. Her portrayal of Gail Getty, a woman tainted by the Getty name on account of her failed marriage to JPG’s alcoholic and drug-addicted son, is what great screening acting is all about. The refusal to sublimate grief and uncertainty into obvious histrionics; the cynical wariness of the character, Williams effortlessly suggesting that Gail is, at heart, gloomily unsurprised by her son’s kidnap and her father-in-law’s stony indifference; the diction (she imparts entire layers of characterisation purely by the way she enunciates); the way she doesn’t so much play off the other cast members as absorb their presence – it’s something special and confirms Williams’s place in the top tier of American acting talent.

That’s the good stuff: Williams and Plummer. Plus some nice period recreation (apart from the awful monochrome prologue which comes off as a bad Antonioni homage) and occasionally eye-catching cinematography.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of it is a clusterfuck. David Scarpa’s script, from John Pearson’s book ‘Painfully Rich’, is all over the place and frequently struggles in terms of concept let alone execution. The opening twenty minutes are just plain terrible, with Scott’s direction seemingly as directionless as Scarpa’s screenplay. The kidnapping – while John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) takes a walk through the seedy underside of Rome – lacks any tension or dramatic impact. The subsequent voice-over narration, by the kidnap victim, strikes a jarring note (he’s under lock and key for most of the rest of the running time: what is there for him to narrate?). Then there’s a series of flashbacks that aren’t so much nested as the nest falling out of the tree and disintegrating as it bounces off branch after branch – these are meant to (a) spell out the backstory of how Getty arrived at his riches and (b) establish the dynamic of Gail and her family. A fifteen second title crawl would have achieved the former and a half-minute exposition dump by Gail herself in an early scene covered the latter. As it is, the film flounders precisely at the point when it should be generating stomach-churning tension.

Nor does it help that Scarpa’s script wants to criticise that moral debilitation that results from the acquisition of obscene amounts of wealth, while Scott’s direction quite evidently has a massive hard-on for lifestyle porn.

Once Scott remembers that he’s making a kidnapping thriller, however, things improve. But here’s the essential problem with Ridley Scott: like Steven Spielberg, the dude made a couple of fucking great genre movies that never pretended to be anything other than genre movies, but got so drunk on the acclaim that he nosedived into a career predicated on the self-conviction that he is An Important And Respected Auteur. With ‘Duel’ and ‘Jaws’, Spielberg set himself up as a suspense director who could have been the next Hitchcock. With Scott, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ put him at the top tier of sci-fi directors. Imagine if Scott had continued in that vein. Imagine if his filmography wasn’t top heavy with middle-brow pabulum like ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, ‘A Good Year’ and ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’. Imagine if his subsequent sci-fi outings hadn’t been ‘Prometheus’ and ‘The Martian’.

‘All the Money in the World’ exhibits the same baseline fault: a striving for Oscar-bait respectability and critical approbation when a down-and-dirty approach to genre conventions would have served the material better. Or to put it another way, he was too busy trying to commune with the spirits of Antonioni and Di Sica across an often plodding 135 minutes when paring it down to an hour and three quarters and getting in touch with his inner Ferdinand de Leo would have been much more effective.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the novel by Chris Van Allsburg or seen Joe Johnston’s 1995 adaptation with Robin Williams. So I broke my ‘Jumanji’ cherry on the CGI-riddled remake starring The Rock and Amy Pond Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan.

Full disclosure part two: I went to see it purely because it promised the kind of low-brow entertainment that would detract from the lousy weather and the prospect of going back to work after a fortnight off over Christmas and New Year.

Full disclosure part three: I wouldn’t ordinarily have bothered reviewing something of this ilk, but the blog’s been dormant since Boxing Day and I figured that some new content wouldn’t go amiss.

So: even though I’d had no exposure to its previous incarnations, I went in knowing that it was about some people who get trapped in a game and have to complete it in order to escape. As I understand it the novel and the first film have Jumanji as a board game but since we’ve gone all twenty-first century and shit, it’s a video game in this one.

In fact, it’s a really crap early 90s video game that gets unearthed by four mismatched teens who are compelled to clear out their high school’s storeroom while in detention. They are: Spencer the nerd (Alex Wolff), “Fridge” the football jock (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha the moody social outcast (Morgan Turner) and Bethany the narcissistic bimbo (Madison Iseman). And if you think those descriptions are clichéd and reductive, that’s literally how the script – credited to no fewer than four people – paints them. Their travails occupy the first twenty minutes or so of the film – and long, unfunny, blandly filmed minutes they are – after which they find themselves downloaded not just into the world of Jumanji itself but into different, adult bodies. Spencer becomes the muscle-bound Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), “Fridge” the physically uninspiring Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha the kick-ass and drop dead gorgeous adventuress Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and Bethany a portly middle aged bloke, Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).

So far, so predictable: body-swap set-up, humour generated from various actors playing against type. And ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ (to give it is full GnR-homaging title) does indeed plunder this set-up for all its worth. But here’s the thing: it works. Not all the time, and it’s often wryly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny. But it takes hackneyed material and makes it work enough of the time that – once the lacklustre opening sequence is firmly in the rearview mirror – the entertainment value is indisputable.

Johnson is always fun when a role allows him to send himself up. Hart does his usual shtick – in fact, rather overdoes it – but fails to generate much amusement. Gillan fares better, particularly in the scenes where she gets to play off Jack Black. But it’s Black who goes romping away with the Man of the Match Award, not just conjuring moments of hilarious physical comedy, but actually developing Bethany as a character beneath the rumpled and pudgy physique of her avatar. I’ve not seen Black this invested in a role in ages, and it’s great to be reminded of his capabilities as a comic actor.

Elsewhere, director Jake Kasdan – whose directorial debut with the magnificently quirky ‘Zero Effect’ twenty years ago in no way, shape or form pointed to him helming a ‘Jumanji’ remake – has fun sending up the conventions of RPGs and the cheesy internal logical of levels, lives and side quests. He’s not so strong on action scenes, though, and the last reel feels like a tired attempt to throw in as many big stunts as possible rather than continuing to develop pace and content via the satirical possibilities of the subject matter.

Traces of something smarter and funnier flicker here and there throughout the two-hour running time (the excision of a good 20 minutes would have helped no end), but ultimately no-one goes into this kind of film expecting whipsmart genre deconstructions or sophisticated humour. You go into it for a brief respite from the January blues.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


A smidge over an hour into Michael Dougherty’s ‘Krampus’, there’s a dementedly brilliant sequence where a white trash weapons fetishist finds himself pinned down by three anthropomorphic gingerbread men armed with a nail gun, a liberal suburban mom fights off a porcelain angel with a snake tongue, a frumpy much-put-upon housewife goes apeshit at some demonic toys with an axe, and an alcoholic aunt with all the personality of drink-driving accident involving a Mack truck and a school bus cuts loose with a pump-action shotgun.

Let’s rewind an hour plus change. ‘Krampus’ opens with a slow-mo sequence, scored to ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ wherein a mall opens its doors to a horde of last-minute Christmas shoppers whose sense of festive spirit, joy, peace and goodwill makes your average episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ look like ‘Songs of Praise’ by comparison. Store assistants are trampled, product displays toppled, Santa’s grotto turns into a microcosm of hatred and frustration, and shoppers trade blows.

As the narrative proper opens, this selfsame sense of yuletide pugilism carries over into a school nativity play rapidly descending into chaos as young Max (Emjay Anthony) gets into an onstage scrap with an older lad which is only curtailed, much to the amusement of the other parents, when his father Tom (Adam Scott) drags him away. Tom and his wife Sarah (Toni Colette) are therefore not in the best of moods when they shepherd Max and his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) back home. Beth’s pissed off anyway that she’s unable to spend Christmas with her boyfriend.

Max, persona non grata in his own home, has only his German immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Sadler). A woman with a superstitious view of Christmas, she urges him to finish his letter to Santa Claus and feeds him with homemade stolen. Shortly afterwards, the family are descended upon by their boorish in-laws. If Tom and Sarah are the stereotypically affluent and liberal couple, Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Allison Tolman, who wins Agitation’s woman of the match award for wearing the worst Christmas sweater ever and still being a fucking badass) are every bit as clichéd as the white trash chip-on-the-shoulder oiks with a passel of ill-behaved kids. Including vindictive tomboy Jordan (Queenie Samuel).

When Jordan steals Max’s letter to Santa and humiliates him by reading it over the dinner table (it’s actually quite a sweet letter: he wishes for Christmas to be like it used to be, and his family not to be at each other’s throats), Max ignores Beth’s entreaties not to rise to the bait, brawls with Jordan, and reclaims the letter only to rip it into shreds and throw it out the window. The scraps whirl up into the snowy sky and all hell breaks loose.

A sudden cold snap monkeys with mobile phone signals, takes out the electricity and effectively cuts them off from civilisation. Beth frets over unreturned texts to her boyfriend and insists on walking over to his house. She meets with a bad end en route. We’re about 30 minutes into the film at this part, and the cynical hilarity of the opening sequence has given way to an extended sequence designed to emphasise just how wankerish Howard and his brood are; an extended sequence that needs to pile on the embarrassments and unpleasantries in order to shepherd Max towards his extremely ill-advised decision.

That minutes 5 to 30 of ‘Krampus’ (i.e. damn near a third of it) jettison all traces of humour is a big enough problem in itself. A comedy-horror failing to deliver on the first half of its self-description is on a hiding to nowhere. That those minutes are not only filled with crude cultural stereotyping – but cultural stereotyping that insists the over privileged hygge-obsessed middle class types deserve all of our sympathy and the working class types, who own guns and drive an SUV, deserve none – is an act of aesthetic cuntishness that all but derails the film. It doesn’t help, either, that the one of only two likeable characters – Beth, whom LaVie Owen plays with a winning mixture of sass and sympathy – gets such short shrift so early in the proceedings.

The other likeable character, Omi, is allowed to stick around long enough to deliver an expositional monologue and is then given similarly reductive treatment. Still, her big moment gifts the film with its most interesting stylistic diversion. The flashback that accompanies her explanation of Krampus – the shadow half of St Nicholas, a spirit who punishes instead of rewarding, who takes rather than giving – is rendered as an animation in the vein of Tim Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride’: the time and the place are fudged, but there’s a strong suggestion of wartime and fascism and loss of hope. A lot of weight is carried here, and while it offsets the banality of the first third, it also makes for an uneasy transition into the dark comedy that follows.

It’s an awkward film, is ‘Krampus’. Brilliance and crassness exist cheek by jowl. For every scene that’s utterly hilarious, there are three or four that fail to find a tonal register. The plethora of seasonal archetypes that assemble for the climatic siege are brilliantly realised, but the whole thing is delivered at such breakneck pace that none of them are ever fully developed. An extended coda, which ends on a visually impressive note, strives for a ‘Twilight Zone’ vibe but comes across as ‘Black Mirror’ copyism.

Granted, it’s a better Christmas film than anything that’s been shown at 2pm on BBC2 this year, but it sure as hell ain’t no ‘Calvaire’, ‘Rare Exports’ or ‘Black Christmas’.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Reviewing ‘Truck Stop Women’ and ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ in quick succession gave me a yen to search out another Claudia Jennings film. So I cracked a beer, resigned myself to the shitty print quality of an online copy and sat through the hour twenty-seven minutes of ‘Sisters of Death’.

I kind of wish I hadn’t bothered.

As a 70s B-movie that stars Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher and Sherry Alberoni, you’d have every right to think that sexploitation shenanigans were guaranteed, but there’s not the faintest glimpse of even a nipple. As a horror movie, it’s bloodless, ridiculously contrived, hugely illogical and it fails to deliver any scares. As a single location thriller, it’s devoid of tension and suffers from a uncharismatic antagonist.

But watch the motherfucker I did, and I need to make up the numbers for this year’s Winter of Discontent, so I’m going to gnash my teeth, sling another beer round my gullet and pound out a review anyway.

The set-up’s pure simplicity: Judy (Jennings) and Liz (Elizabeth Bergen) are inducted into a sorority via a ritual which involves a test of courage – a blank loaded into a pistol, said firearm aimed the inductee’s head and the trigger pulled. Both participants know that the shells are blanks, so quite how it counts as a test of courage is the first of many things about the film that don’t make a bit of sense.

Anyway, hands up everyone who thinks that the ritual goes tits up and one of the girls gets shot for real? And hands up everyone who clocked Jennings’ name above the title and made a safe guess that it’s Liz who buys the farm? And hands up everyone who’d put money on the film immediately throwing up a “X years later” title card? And hands up if you have a mild inkling that some weird set of circumstances is engineered whereby the girls are thrown together in an isolated location and start getting killed off?

I’m tempted to say keep your hands in the air if you’re reasonably confident who the final girl is, but we’d be getting ahead of ourselves …

Anyway, all five of the sorority sisters present at the accident are, seven years hence, summoned to a reunion. They are all deeply suspicious and nobody admits to being the individual who organised it; but they all go along anyway. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 1.) They’re met at the rendezvous point by two slimy lover boys who tell them that they’ve been paid to drive them to the venue but they can’t say where it is and they don’t know the identity of the person who engaged them. Judy and her pals take half a millisecond to assimilate the logistics of this well dodgy scenario, then happily pile in the car. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 2.) The back windows of the car are blacked out and the location they’re taken to kept under wraps. One of them is mildly perturbed. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 3.)

The venue turns out to be a rambling hacienda with a swimming pool. There’s no sign of their host and still no indication of why they were brought together. And, as the drivers depart, no means of egress. Plus there’s a fucking big electrified fence around the property. They take a nano-second to assimilate the terrible implications of all this, then throw on swimsuits and have a pool party. (Facepalm-o-meter score: well into the double figures by now.)

Director Joseph A. Mazzuca – in his fourth and final outing as director – shifts gears at this point from unsuspenseful suspense thriller to lowbrow comedy as our oily Romeos decide to sneak back into the compound (managing to do so just before the electrified fence is switched on) and try their luck with the bevy of beauties. Briskly brushed off by the bevy of beauties, they’re beholden to bad luck as the brains behind the business at hand behoves it beneficial to blow the gaff on his identity and motive. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of synonyms for “identity” and “motive” that start with “B”. Which kinds of fucks up the alliterative flow of that sentence. I have failed you, o my readers.)

So, anyways, the big bad behind it all turns out to be Edmond Clybourn (Arthur Franz), Liz’s bereaved and vengeful father. And, y’know, kudos to Mazzuca and scripters Peter Arnold and Elwyn Richards for just coming straight out with it. Trying to string it out to the hour and a half mark before laying Edmond’s (entirely predictable) big reveal on the audience would have been the kiss of death for a movie that doesn’t have much life in it anyway.

However …

Rolling Edmond onstage forty minutes in and having him give it some “my daughter’s dead and one or more of you wanton harlots is responsible and I’ll have the truth from you tomorrow, so help me God” (not his exact words, but depressingly close enough) creates its own set of problems.

Problem the first: everyone’s confined to the same premises and Team Judy clearly has superior numbers over Team Edmond, their odds favoured by the fact that Edmond has got to sleep at some point, yet it never occurs to anyone to create a distraction (or several distractions), lure him out and jump him.

Problem the second: at least two nights pass without Edmond making his dramatic re-entrance (unless someone dropped a day-for-night shot in the wrong place during editing) and in all this time, with everything in the hacienda at their disposal, nobody posits a useful escape plan (such as, oh I don’t know, unscrewing all the wooden doors from their frames, piling them against the fence until it bows under the weight, then scrambling over on them given that wood doesn’t fucking conduct electricity) Also, Edmond gotta take a nap sometime (see above).

Problem the third: while Edmond’s fucking around making bullets and playing the flute – it’s revealed late in the game that he’s a famous conductor – the sorority sister responsible for Liz’s death starts killing off the others. The script is kind of fuzzy re: motivation here, and in fact the last fifteen minutes or so goes overboard with its bluff/double bluff/triple bluff rug pulls, but I’m guessing the prevailing logic would be: guilty party kills off the others to prevent them from revealing her as the guilty party. Hands up everyone who thinks there might just be an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny, ickle-wickle flaw in this plan? (That noise you heard was the facepalm-o-meter blowing up.)

Problem the fourth: would a famous conductor really make his own bullets and cut loose with a gatling gun? Okay, so maybe Karajan would, because once you’ve climbed a mountain, flown a jet, sailed a yacht and recorded complete Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner symphony cycles for the ages, I guess you’ve got to do something to blow off steam. Okay, and maybe I can see Solti doing it just to clinch that Chicago Symphony Orchestra interview. And maybe Kleiber. Anyone who demands a top-of-the-range Audi as a concert fee probably owns a shooter. But Sir Adrian Boult or Sir Neville Marriner or Sir Mark Elder packing heat? Nah, just can’t see it.

And now I’ve typed that paragraph, I find myself plunging down the rabbit hole of an alternative version of this film in which Edmond is driven to psychotic excess not by the death of his daughter but because conducting symphony orchestras just plain makes you a badass motherfucker. Somebody get Roger Corman on the phone. Does Christian Thielemann have any acting experience?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Great Smokey Roadblock

When Kirk Douglas starred in David Miller’s classic contemporary western ‘Lonely Are the Brave’, he remarked that it should have been called ‘The Last Cowboy’. One of the alternative titles that John Leone’s ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ goes under is ‘The Last of the Cowboys’. There are other parallels between the two films … and some significant differences, not least in the approach to the material and the overall tone of the piece.

There’s also a touch of Kurosawa’s ‘Ikuru’. Its other alternative title is ‘The Goodbye Run’: the plot centres on a terminally ill truck driver, “Elegant” John (Henry Fonda) stealing back his repossessed Kenworth and setting out to find a load. He’s been a trucker all his life, a gentleman of the road, never made a late delivery or got so much as a single speeding ticket (how these two feats reconcile is something the script, perhaps wisely, opts not to explain), and damned if he won’t be a trucker to the very end.

The load he ends up with – more traditional freight being denied him when load bosses twig that he’s driving what is in effect a stolen vehicle ergo he’s a major insurance risk – is human cargo. To whit, brothel madame Penelope (Eileen Brennan) and her girls, including the pragmatic Ginny (Susan Sarandon, who also co-produced the film). Penelope and co. have found themselves undomiciled and on the run following a vice bust.

But even before “Elegant” John offers the remarkably spacious square-meterage of his tautliner as a mobile knocking shop, he picks up devout hitchhiker Bilbo (Robert Englund). I’m not sure if the script means to portray him as Amish or Quaker, but he’s sure as hell, ahem, I mean sure as heaven big on the love/fear of God and pious self-denial. The scene in which Bilbo bags a lift is basically the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ but with a frickin’ great Kenworth. It was at this point that it struck me just how odd a movie ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ is.

I’d had an inkling of its oddness during the dream-sequence opening credits wherein “Elegant” John, all frail and distraught in a hospital gown, claws at some chainlink fencing then flits around a pitch black interior calling “Eleanor … Eleanor … I’m coming for you, Eleanor”. Eleanor turns out to be his truck, named for Eleanor Roosevelt. “Elegant” John has a monologue about the First Lady that gifts Fonda with his most poignant – and beautifully underplayed – moment in the film. But I digress: the credits scene plays out like some weird art film, only with a title that suggests adherence to the ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of drive-in aesthetics.

(Interestingly, although it was released in 1977, the year that Hal Needham’s ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, Don Hulette’s ‘Breaker! Breaker!’ and William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ made their debut, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ was actually shot three years earlier. It essentially predates the late 70s/early 80s slew of trucking movies which proceeded from the massive box office kerrr-chiiing of ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, which raked in $300million from a $4.3million budget. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Convoy’ and Norman’s Jewison’s ‘F.I.S.T.’ followed in 1978. It’s tempting to evaluate ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ as the film ‘Convoy’ could have been if Peckinpah had been in ‘Junior Bonner’ mode and not coked up to the gills.)

Now, after six paragraphs and 560 words, you might be thinking to yourself: Well, all that’s fine and dandy, Mr Agitation, and you’m sho’ is the film historian, but ain’t ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ a little, uh, vanilla for inclusion in the Winter of Discontent? Sho’, it’s got big rigs and hookers but there ain’t none of kit-offery that you get in them Claudia Jennings films, and there ain’t a hint of violence, and the most graphic thing that happens is some cop cars get bashed up on account of a Kenworth failin’ to stop for the roadblock of the title. An’ why don’tcha admit it, Mr Fancy Pants Movie Critic: for a movie that’s called ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’, the roadblock itself is kinda pitiful?

And if you were thinking thoughts that were travelling along those kind of lines, I’d avow that, yes indeed, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ doesn’t tick a whole lot of Winter of Discontent boxes. Hardly any, in fact. And yes, the eponymous roadblock is about as effective as an ice sculpture of a shovel employed on the footplate of a steam locomotive. And yes, I am aware that constitutes the transportation equivalent of a mixed metaphor.

I’ll also admit that I watched ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ on a whim, figuring if nothing else that the title chimed with ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’. Half an hour in, I was acutely aware of two things: (i) content-wise, there was little Winter of Discontent’ material on offer; (ii) considered within even the sketchiest critical perameters, it was bonkers enough to demand Winter of Discontent privileges.

So how off-the-wall is it? Well, it’s a comedy road movie that provides a treatise on age, death and morality. The only x-meets-y comparison scenario it invites relies on movies it predates (it’s basically ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ meets ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ with the heart and soul of ‘The Straight Story’ only with a fuckton more horsepower). Its intellectual antecedents are Steinbeck and Kurosawa. Its cast includes one of yesteryear’s greatest square-jawed tough guys, one the 70's smartest and sultriest sirens on the cusp of stardom, and the future Freddie Kruger playing a man of God. Not to mention Peckinpah regular Dub Taylor playing a corrupt cop named Harley Davidson (“like the motorsickle”).

It is, by turns, emotionally devastating and cringingly amateurish, perfectly pitched and appallingly misjudged, finely nuanced and thuddingly heavy-handed. It’s a mass of aesthetic contradictions, a total mishmash, and there’s no way on God’s green but highway-riddled earth that it has any right to hang together, let alone lay claim to the status of a one-off little gem, but by some miracle of the truck stop, whorehouse or two-lane blacktop it coheres into a piece of work that doesn’t so much equal the sum of its parts as tear up the delivery note and throw the pieces out of the window and breathe a sigh of relief that you’ll never know how close it came to being an abject disaster.